The Golden Bowl and the Silver Cord

H. L. Haywood

The sacred sentences which fall on the ears of the candidate as he makes his mystic round are so heavy with poignant beauty that one hesitates to intrude the harsh language of prose upon such strains of poetry, solemn sweet. We may well believe that the men who introduced the reading here had no other thought than that the words might the better create an atmosphere in which the coming drama of hate and doom might all the more impressively come home to the heart of the participants. If such was their purpose neither Shakespeare nor Dante could have found words or sentiments more appropriate to the hour. There is a music and majesty in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes which leaves us dumb with awe and wonder and our hearts open to the impressions of a tragedy alongside which the doom of Lear seems insignificant and vain.

For generations the commentators of Holy Writ have seen in the allegory of this chapter a reference to the decay of the body and the coming of death; to them, the golden bowl was the skull, the silver cord was the spinal nerve, "the keepers of the house" were the hands, the "strong men" the limbs; the whole picture is made to symbolize the body's falling into ruin and the approach of death. One hesitates to differ from an interpretation so true in its application and so dignified by its associations. But it must be doubted whether the sad and disillusioned man who penned the lines possessed either the knowledge of human anatomy implied by the old interpretation or the intention to make his poem into a medical description of senility.

A more thorough scholarship has come to see in the allegory a picture of the horror of death set forth by metaphors drawn from an Oriental thunderstorm.

It had been a day of wind and cloud and rain; but the clouds did not, as was usual, disperse after the shower. They returned again and covered the heavens with their blackness. Thunderstorms were so uncommon in Palestine that they always inspired fear and dread, as many a paragraph in the Scriptures will testify. As the storm broke the strong men guarding the gates of rich men's houses began to tremble; the hum of the little mills where the women were always grinding at even time suddenly ceased because the grinders were frightened from their toil; the women, imprisoned in the harems, who had been gazing out of the lattice to watch the activities of the streets, drew back into their dark rooms; even the revelers, who had been sitting about their tables through the afternoon, eating dainties and sipping wine, lost their appetites, and many were made so nervous that the sudden twitting of a bird would cause them to start with anxious surprise.

As the terror of the storm, the poet goes on to say, so is the coming of death, when man "goes to his home of everlasting and mourners go about the streets." Whatever men may have been, good or bad, death beings equal terror to all. A man may have been rich, like the golden lamp hung on a silver chain in the palace of a king; he may have been as poor as the earthen pitcher in which maidens carried water from the public well, or even as crude as the heavy wooden wheel wherewith they drew the water; what his state was matters not, death is as dread a calamity to the one as to the other. When that dark adventure comes the fine possessions in which men had sought security will be vain to stay the awful passing into night. "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity." The one bulwark against the common calamity, the Preacher urges, is to remember the Creator, yea, to remember Him from youth to old age; to believe that one goes to stand before Him is the one and only solace in an hour when everything falls to ruin and the very desire to live has been quenched by the ravages of age and the coming of death.